We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There was a bracing nip in the early morning air. The Rockville suburbs were dappled with meadow-green median strips and pumpkin-filled parking lots. Even rush-hour traffic glided along like some triumphant procession.
It was autumn in all her glory, a perfect day to do drugs.
Flushed with anticipation, I approached the splendid skyscraper where I would get my fix. Here, I had been told, was a glass-and-steel Xanadu for the true connoisseur. It better be, I thought: It was barely 8 a.m. and already I had a bad craving.
The 16-story building blotted out the sun at the entrance, and the sudden shade sent a shiver through me, along with an unsettling thought: Had I made it here only to arrive unprepared? I reached into my pockets and realized I was missing an essential apparatus of my portable drug-delivery system. I looked around, desperate for help.
As my panic reached full pitch, a kindly female voice came to the rescue: “Need a light?” Gray-haired in a bright purple dress, she extended her flaming Bic lighter. Speechless with gratitude, I inhaled from my drug-delivery device, sucking the smoke deep into my lungs.
It was just a filtered Camel, but the glorious buzz hit like a teen’s first drag on a clove cigarette.
That’s when everything came into focus, and I realized all the wild rumors were true: There is no more agreeable public place to enjoy pure tobacco flavor than right here in front of the Health and Human Services building—headquarters of the anti-nicotine czar himself, David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Certainly, part of the pleasure stems from the innate thrill of rebellion lurking in every smoker: Here a smoker can toke extra proudly, reveling in the fact that his rolled tobacco is being targeted a few office floors above as one of the most evil legal health hazards left on the planet. Even the thrill of smoking in the high-school bathroom can’t compare with lighting up at the very door of the Man Who Would Ban Cigs.
Before me stood a throng of FDA workers—among the 7,000 employed here—enjoying their first cigarette breaks of the day. All the major brands were represented: Marlboro, Camel, Newport, Salem, and Kool. But there were also Benson & Hedges, Tareyton, Winston, Carlton, More, Virginia Slims, and the ever-popular cut-rate brand, Basic.
The cig brigade surrounded the entrance as their smokeless co-workers (some were chomping gum, one even had a lollipop) shuffled through the CO haze. It was a supremely peaceful scene, without so much as a harsh word between the contigents. “They treat us pretty good here,” said one woman, a low-tar True Blue smoker for more than two decades.
Unlike so many smokers banished from their offices, there seemed to be no embittered sense of exile among these FDA tobacco fiends. Instead, I could detect a distinct whiff of hooky-playing exhilaration in their patient, almost deliberate collective puffing. Even the occasional hacking cough or emphysema wheeze couldn’t detract from their brief freedom from the fluorescent lights.
At the entrance, a landscaped garden resembles a sanatorium built by the Philip Morris Co. Saplings, trimmed boxwoods, and perennials provide leafy retreats for philosophical repose, and there are countless places for the discarded butts. Laminated wooden benches feature boxed ashtrays filled with white sand. If this is purgatory, I thought, I might just buy another pack and stick around.
True, Kessler intends to have tobacco declared a drug, subject to FDA regulation. And yes, he has relentlessly assailed tobacco companies for peddling cigarettes, which he contemptuously dubs “drug-delivery systems.” His nicotine-hooked minions couldn’t agree more; they’re just thankful they’re still allowed to indulge their vice on government time.
“He’s right, you know,” sighed a self-described “old compliance dog” with a slow-burning More clamped in his mouth. “You’re damn right this stuff’s addictive.I’ve been trying to quit for nine years.”
I watched the endless shifts of smokers make the rounds outside Kessler’s castle; a few hopeless addicts came back for repeat puffs three times in an hour.
Then a bald geezer in a gray suit bolted out the front door, lighting up as he darted for cover behind a concrete pillar.
“That guy’s from the commissioner’s office,” chortled a Marlboro man, his FDA ID badge hanging from a mulch-brown leisure suit. “He hides over there, ’cause Kessler gives him shit big-time for smoking.”
By the time lunch rolled around, I had polished off my pack of Camels. A pipe-smoking gent reassured me there was a drugstore in the building that sold cigarettes. I said my thanks and went looking for another fix. Kessler hasn’t won yet.